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Laverne Cox on Disclosure - Netflix

What Netflix’s Disclosure Teaches Us About Trans Representation in the Media

I’ve always enjoyed an informative documentary, and Disclosure on Netflix is just that, and then some. Executive produced by actress and advocate Laverne Cox, the documentary takes an in-depth look at Hollywood’s depiction of transgender people, and the impact that depiction has had on their lives and how they are perceived. Disclosure pushes the LGBTQ+ conversation to a new frontier, one that frankly, in my opinion, is long overdue.

I’ve wanted to get sharper on trans representation in the media for a long time now, so when I saw Disclosure on my Netflix recommendations, I immediately added it to my watch list. It covers a wide range of topics, striking the perfect balance of substance without being overwhelming. The documentary does an impressive job of illuminating issues in an intelligent and thought-provoking way, while also maintaining an accessible tone that’s easy to wrap your head around. I would highly recommend giving it a watch.

Below are just a few of my main key takeaways from this really excellent production.

1. Most Americans Totally Depend on the Media to Explain What It Means to Be Trans

When you belong to a marginalised community, whether it’s your sexual orientation or gender identity, race, religion, or something else entirely, you develop a critical awareness of your identity. You quickly understand that the stories you consume are not about your life, and we all want to see ourselves reflected back to us in a story. It helps us understand how we might fit into the world, and what the endless possibilities of our lives could look like.

In the context of the trans experience, GLAAD reports that 80% of Americans don’t personally know a transgender person. That means 80% of Americans are only able to form an opinion of trans individuals based on how trans people are depicted in the media. Oftentimes, this also means that the media shapes the way trans people perceive themselves, since trans people are frequently part of that 80% as well, at least for some part of their life.

2. Hollywood Has Taught Audiences How to React to Trans People for Decades

Every trans person carries the history of how trans people are portrayed in television and film, and that portrayal has been relatively static up until very recently. Laughter, fear, and repulsion are all common reactions to a trans character in a storyline. Sometimes they’re dressed in drag for a cheap laugh; other times, they’re sexual deviants and psychotic serial killers. For many people in the world, this is their only reference point for a trans person, leaving a damaging footprint on what it means to be trans.

GLAAD conducted a study of 134 trans characters, and discovered that the most common portrayal of a trans woman was as a sex worker. Worth noting, when trans women are depicted as sex workers, that circumstance is rarely ever explained. This narrative implies that in our society, sex work is just an activity that is disproportionately associated with this specific demographic. In the real world, some trans women are pushed into sex work because of unemployment due to discrimination. The unemployment rate for transgender people is 3X the national average, or 4X for trans people of color. There are contextual reasons for why a trans woman might be engaging in sex work, but in the media, that context goes missing entirely.

Embed from Getty Images

3. The Media Has Been Talking About the Trans Experience All Wrong

As trans people became more widely known, their presence on daytime television and talk shows became more prominent. Some trans people mark this as an exciting moment in history when they were able to see themselves on mainstream television, an opportunity to endear families to trans people and improve their attitudes towards the trans community. Others, however, find that period of time upsetting, believing that the trans community was being exploited on television.

The line of questioning on these shows was pretty predictable. When did you realize that you identify as another sex? How can you be so sure? What happens to your body when you start to transition? What does your body look like right now? All these questions focus on one’s transition, and when we focus too much on the transition, we don’t focus enough on the human experience. By doing this, we objectify the trans experience. Check out the interview below between trans activist Janet Mock and reporter Alicia Menendez for a great example of how this can manifest itself on television.

Interview between trans activist Janet Mock and reporter Alicia Menendez

4. We Need More Trans Representation in the Media

There are only so many trans stories today, and unfortunately, they tend to be quite similar. Beyond relying on the usual tropes, there’s also the fact that trans women far outnumber trans men in the media, despite their numbers being approximately equal in reality. And while trans stories have become increasingly more popular (think: Orange is the New Black, or Theo Putnam on Chilling Adventures of Sabrina), there’s still a long way to go.

If more trans stories were available, we would have a richer understanding of what it means to be trans. We’ve learned that just featuring a trans character in a storyline isn’t enough, and while many will say that any trans story is a diverse story, we need to acknowledge that there is far more diversity to be explored, even within the trans community. Those stories, the ones that are still untold, are the stories that will advance our understanding of one another, and will reflect the true spectrum of the human experience.

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